Tuesday, July 8, 2014

2017 Champions? What Exactly Does the Future of the Houston Astros Look Like?

What do the Astros’ future prospects look like? Just a few days ago, people were abuzz when Sports Illustrated ran this cover featuring new star George Springer and calling the Astros “Your 2017 World Series Champs”. Really, it might seem like big talk for a team that’s finished last in the majors for the past three seasons, but is it merited?

Is there a history of teams turning around like this on the strength of a minor league program bursting with talent? In fact, just how “bursting with talent” is the Astros’ farm system, from a historical context?

To answer that, I went back through Baseball America’s top 100 rankings since 2000 on a team-by-team and year-by-year basis, thanks to Baseball-Reference. My methodology was pretty basic-I gave each prospect points based on where they appeared on the list, with first getting 100 points and 100th getting 1 point. Then, I totaled the points for each team by year.

The 2014 Astros had 314 prospect-points, thanks to Carlos Correa (7th), George Springer (18th), Mark Appel (39th), Michael Foltynewicz (59th), Lance McCullers (77th), and Jon Singleton (82nd). That gave them the 31st highest ranking since 2000, and the third best system from 2014 (the Cubs had 402, while the Pirates had 359). It’s fair to say that the Astros should be doing better, what with two first overall picks heading in to this season (Brady Aiken* will almost certainly make the list next year, representing their third straight number one pick). However, it’s important to see the context of where they were just a few short seasons ago:

*Note: I wrote this before this news appeared.

2014: 324, 31st best since 2000, out of 420
2013: 279, 62/420
2012: 160, tied 202/420
2011: 66, 365/420
2010: 98, tied 313/420
2009: 48, tied 390/420
2008: 48, tied 390/420
2007: 122, tied 263/420
2006: 88, tied 328/420
2005: 62, 373/420
2004: 52, 385/420
2003: 34, tied 404/420

Think about that for a second. For almost a decade, this was a team that averaged 357th best farm system of the new millennium, or to turn it around, their average for nine seasons was the 64th worst minor league system since 2000. And in just two and a half seasons, the team has turned it around to one of the 30 best in that time span, possibly even better now with the recent draft infusion bringing in names like Brady Aiken, Derek Fisher, and A.J. Reed.

Anyway, is there a history of teams with good farm systems turning it around? I started by looking at teams in the top octile of prospect rankings, that is, the top half of the top quartile. This worked out to the top 36 teams, or any system with a score over 319. Next, I looked at How they did the year before the ranking, then the season of the ranking itself and the two subsequent seasons.

The end result looks less than inspiring at first. The year of the top prospect ranking, teams averaged about two wins more. The following year, they’d gain an additional half of a win, and then experience no additional gains the next year.

That doesn’t sound good. However, there’s a problem with such a simplistic ranking: teams don’t need to be bad to have a good farm system, despite what you’d expect at first blush. For example, one of these top octile teams is the 2013 Cardinals, who won 97 games en route to the pennant. Obviously, there isn’t much room for them to go up.

So, I cut the list down to just teams with a sub-.500 rating the year before the ranking. That cut out half of the list. The remaining teams? On average, they won 8 more games the year that they appeared in the top echelon of prospects, and an additional game in the following year before gaining an additional 5 and a half wins for the second year out.

Now, that isn’t to say that the prospects caused the teams to improve necessarily. Baseball is a game of regression to the mean, so it makes sense that teams at one extreme would move closer to the middle. Nevertheless, there are cases of top-farm systems making big sudden gains. The 2007 Diamondbacks went from 76 wins to 90 the year of their top ranking. The 2007 Rockies also picked up 14 wins in the standings. The 2008 Rays made up an astounding 31 games in going from the cellar to the World Series. Four other teams saw upticks of over a dozen games the year of the ranking.

Granted, an increase of a dozen wins for the Astros means they go 63-99 (as is, they’re on pace for about 66 wins). On the other hand, no other team in the top octile has started from lower than 61 wins. The Astros are truly in new territory.

What would a playoff-contender Astros look like? Well, let’s just use Wins Above Replacement as a baseline, since it’s pretty simple to use. In 2014, the six teams AL teams who made it to a 163rd game (the five playoff teams plus the Rangers, who had a one game play-in with the Rays for the second wild card) averaged 47.7 WAR. In contrast, the Astros last year totaled 3.9 WAR. They’re already up to 9.2 WAR this year through 90 games, mostly from trimming players with negative value from the roster. That puts them on pace for roughly 16.6 WAR, or about 30 Wins short. Where could that come from, somewhat realistically speaking? (as in, not just saying “all of their pitching prospects become Sandy Koufax and all of their hitters become Willie Mays.)

Well, The pitching staff has been somewhat solid, “only” placing 22nd out of 30 teams in value. The top four in the rotation (Dallas Keuchel-Collin McHugh-Jarred Cosart-Brett Oberholtzer) are all pace to be 2-win players or better, which is about average starter level. McHugh’s pace is for a 3-win performance, while Keuchel’s tracking for about 4 and a half. The rotation itself is actually 12th in the majors in value right now, believe it or not. It’s not too hard to see that going up. I mean, they have Cosart, Appel, Aiken, McCullers, and Foltynewicz, all of whom are or have been top pitching prospects. You figure at least one of five hits their high expectations and becomes an ace, presenting a 5 or so win improvement over the current fifth slot. Maybe a second one becomes a three-to-four win guy in case Keuchel slides, and maybe one of Keuchel/Oberholtzer/a free agent/one of the earlier five/[insert other prospect I haven’t mentioned yet] becomes a second 3-to-4 win guy…That’s a pretty solid rotation right there. That’s about 6 more wins, and I don’t think any of it sounds too crazy. It helps that their rotation is already not too bad.

The bullpen has been worth -0.4 wins, second to last in MLB. Bullpens are notoriously fickle, so that could be changed easily. An average bullpen last year was worth 4 wins, so even if they just hit the median by collecting scraps and failed starters, that’s a 4-win swing.

That leaves 20 wins for the batters. That sounds pretty large, but it should be easier than you’d think. Mostly because it’s hard to be as bad going forward as they have been. Only two Astro hitters thus far have been worth more than a win so far: 24-year olds* Jose Altuve and George Springer. Every other position has been close to a disaster. Jason Castro, 27, took a large step back after last season, with only 0.8 WAR so far (his back-up, Carlos Corporan, has 0.5). At first base, 22-year-old Jon Singleton is still adjusting, sitting at -0.4 WAR so far after Jesus Guzman and Marc Krauss combined for -0.9 before him. At short, Marwin Gonzalez and Jonathan Villar have exactly canceled each other out. At third, Matt Dominguez, 24, stands at 0 WAR exactly.

*If I list a player’s age, it means they appeared on a top prospect list in recent memory, so we can hope for better in the future.

Designated hitter Chris Carter, 27, probably won’t be around by the time the Astros are good based on his recent track record, but his -0.3 WAR to date won’t be hard to replace. Defensive metrics (which are shaky on a year-to-year basis) don’t like Dexter Fowler’s fielding this year, knocking him down from a 2+ win player to a 1-win player. There’s a chance they trade him for another prospect too, in the event they think his defensive downturn is permanent. The final outfield spot stands at -1.6 WAR, cycling through young players like Enrique Hernandez, Alex Presley, Domingo Santana, L.J. Hoes, and Robbie Grossman. But if one of those five guys can’t latch on and become at least starter level, finding a starter-level outfielder shouldn’t be too difficult in free agency.

So, non-Springer/Altuve Astros have combined for -1.1 WAR on the year, or about -2 prorated. But, adding just basic starter (2-win) players at all seven of those positions gets them up to 14 more wins. Plus, should all of those young hitters fail, they still have yet to try Carlos Correa, Delino DeShields Jr., Rio Ruiz, A.J. Reed, and Derek Fisher, Max Stassi, plus any free agents they decide to sign to patch over holes.*

*Also, on a personal note, I like last year’s draftees and ex-CCBLers Tony Kemp and Conrad Gregor, both of whom are doing decently this season.

And we aren’t even assuming that any of their position players other than Jose Altuve reaches an All-Star/5-win level, including Springer and Singleton. Basically, the Astros don’t need a lot of luck; if one of their pitching prospects and one more of their hitting prospects (since they have an excelling Altuve) succeed, they could fill the rest of the lineup with just 2-win players and be pretty close to a playoff team. And they have enough depth in young talent that at least some of them should become starter-level.

This isn’t to say that any of this will be fast. It could take another year or three before these players latch on at the pro level. But the Astros’ fantastic minor league depth is a huge asset in looking at their future: they don’t need an incredibly high hit rate on their prospects to return to respectability. Going 50/50 on their youngsters just reaching 2-win status would put them in striking distance of the postseason, even before factoring in the possibility of adding players from outside the organization. If even just two of their many top prospects hit big time and become a 5-win All Star, they’re even closer.

Add in the success that the last farm system that Jeff Luhnow built has seen and it’s hard not to feel optimistic about the Astros. Maybe predicting a 2017 World Series victory is hyperbolic, but predicting a World Series winner for this season is still something of a crapshoot, thanks to the randomness of the playoffs. As is, it’s enough to say that it looks like they’ll have a strong young core in place for a few years, and that’s a hell of a lot better than most teams can say.

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